LONDON As the BBC cuts back its operations, including paring approximately 2,500 jobs, its commercial cousin, BBC Worldwide, is on a roll.
Just last weekend, Worldwide, run by the BBC’s former finance chief John Smith, launched a suite of channels in Poland.
It’s another development in a five-year plan that will see, among other things, roughly 30 BBC-branded global channels roll out within the next two years.
In the U.K., Worldwide is preparing to launch Project Kangaroo, a joint VOD venture in which the pubcaster is partnering with commercial giant ITV and pubcaster Channel 4, which Smith wants to take international — provided his org can secure enough rights.
Across the Atlantic, paybox BBC America, wholly owned by Worldwide, is looking in much better shape than a year ago. It claims a 50% hike in primetime ratings and a younger-skewing audience.
This is due to a makeover spearheaded by veteran webhead Garth Ancier, recruited to run Worldwide’s U.S. arm a year ago.
The outfit also is cranking up a New York production arm, led by former Lifetime exec Allison Wallach. The plan is to mirror the activities of BBC America’s West Coast studio, currently prepping the sixth season of ABC hit “Dancing With the Stars.”
Another new U.S. Worldwide exec is Luke Bradley-Jones, who is leading the charge to buy U.S. shingles.
This follows Worldwide’s investment in two British indie start-ups, Leftbank and Cliffhanger, which gives the outfit first refusal on distribution rights to both entities’ content.
If all this is not enough to keep Smith tied to his BlackBerry, there is also Worldwide’s recent $150 million purchase of a controlling stake in Lonely Planet, the Australian travel specialist, whose guides are required reading for the back-pack fraternity.
This ambitious and wholly unexpected move complements the BBC’s activities in areas like natural history, where programs such as “Planet Earth” are big sellers for Worldwide.
Smith’s aim is to double Worldwide’s profits to £222 million ($444 million) in 4½ years, and reverse the split that traditionally has seen approximately 60% of Worldwide’s sales generated in Blighty while 40% comes from overseas.
Smith is a modest, conservatively dressed man who has served three BBC directors-general: John Birt, Greg Dyke and now Mark Thompson.
Typically, he cautions against reading too much into this flurry of activity.
“What we’re doing is implementing the strategy that was laid out a couple of years ago,” he says matter of factly. “The only thing that is different is that we’re starting to acquire.”
He says Worldwide looked at the U.S. shingle Reveille, soon to be bought by British indie Shine, but decided that without founder Ben Silverman, it was wrong for the BBC.
Smith’s targets are the developing world — Worldwide claims it is India’s largest publisher of consumer magazines — and English-speaking territories.
Inevitably the U.S. occupies much of Smith’s thinking. He is under no illusions about the challenges that even the mighty BBC faces in the world’s biggest media market.
“Although the BBC’s brand name is important in the U.S., it’s respected because of its high reputation for news, rather than as an entertainment brand. We’ve got a job to do in turning that round,” Smith acknowledges.
While other, less competitive markets are being targeted for the roll out of the BBC’s global channels, principally CBeebies, BBC Entertainment, Knowledge and Lifestyle, across the Atlantic the difficulty of securing distribution means that no channel launches are planned at the moment.
Instead, the emphasis is on new media, including a high-definition version of BBC America, VOD launches and other web-based activities. In the pipeline are a commercial version of bbc.com and so-called “passion-based” sites for communities of interest around topics such as cars, travel, food and gardening.
For the first time the BBC will sell its own advertising in the U.S. — previously done by longtime production partner Discovery.
Coin coming in
Thanks to a $700 million borrowing facility, Smith is determined that Worldwide will continue spreading its wings both in the U.S. and beyond — and open up as many different revenue streams as possible, especially in these times of economic instability.
“We are planning for a global recession,” he says. “It’s not if but when. I am happy that we are diversified because any company that is in advertising alone will be in a tricky spot when the market turns down. We feel well positioned to cope with it.”
With so much gloom surrounding the battered BBC, it is refreshing to hear such an upbeat message from one of its toppers.
His only real problem will be if commercial rivals once again start lobbying against a BBC Worldwide that is so conspicuously expansionist — and that some will argue is at odds with its public service role.